The labels in the snack food aisle promise low-fat, no-fat, low-cal and low-carb tasty treats.
But what really makes a food healthy? And should we believe the commercial hype about soy products and our health? Renowned nutrition and weight-loss expert, and University of Kentucky physician and researcher, Dr. James Anderson addresses these and other questions in two articles in the June issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
What is so good about soy?
A quick trip through the health-food section of any grocery will reveal several labels touting soy content, but most Americans do not know much about soy beyond a vague idea that it is a healthy food. In his JACN article, Anderson reports on his investigation into the effectiveness of soy in adult weight loss.
Meal replacements, including powders, drinks and energy bars, are popular weight loss tools. Anderson tested two commercially available meal replacements – one soy-based, and one milk based – in a group of obese adults for twelve weeks. Both groups lost weight. The soy-based group lost slightly more weight in any given week, and displayed lower serum cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels. Soy intake also produced small but significant reductions in serum glucose values. This evidence suggests that soy may be a valuable tool in maintaining overall health, lowering cholesterol, and even slowing the development of diabetes.
"The bottom line is soy is healthy, and while incorporating it into weight loss may not have a more dramatic effect on your waistline than other nutrition plans, its benefits go beyond weight loss toward increasing overall health," Anderson said.
What is a healthy snack?
In another JACN article, "Snack Foods: Comparing Nutrition Values of Excellent Choices and 'Junk Foods'," Anderson raises the possibility that poor snack choices may play an active role in increasing rates of childhood obesity. Noting that snacking can be healthful when snack foods are high in nutritional value and low in calories, Anderson provides a quantitative analysis of what makes a snack either a healthy choice, or a "junk food."
While parents may not enter the grocery store with calculator in hand to crunch the numbers before their children bite into some crunchy snacks, Anderson's research reveals that there is a reliable method for calculating the health value of snack foods. He calls upon manufacturers and government to make this information more readily available to consumers.
"Labels should clearly identify excellent food choices and junk foods," said Anderson. "The government should also consider options such as taxing junk foods, subsidizing healthy foods, and prohibiting junk food advertisements in media targeted to children, especially advertising in schools."
As a physician, Anderson regularly treats young people trying to control their weight. He believes stemming the American obesity epidemic is a task shared by all.
"Communities, schools, legislative bodies, movies, television and food companies should partner in promoting healthful food choices. Where childhood obesity is concerned, we are all responsible," Anderson said.
Anderson, professor of medicine and clinical nutrition, UK College of Medicine, and director, UK Metabolic Research Group, is also the director of the Obesity Research Network, a nationwide network of physicians and scientists recognized for their work in the treatment of obesity. He also is medical director of the HMR® Program for Weight Management in conjunction with the University of Kentucky. He currently has several weight loss and lipid treatment research studies in progress.